In nomine Patris

Trip Start Oct 20, 2012
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Trip End Nov 02, 2012


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Flag of Italy  , Lazio,
Monday, October 22, 2012

In Italy, state-run museums are closed on Mondays, and given that most of the museums you're likely to want to visit are national landmarks, tourist options tend to dwindle pretty severely on the first day of the week. In Rome, this means that we, along with about half of the city's tourist population, decided to spend the day at the Vatican, as it was one of the few shows in town open to the public. On the advice of just about every travel site we found, we booked an entrance time in advance on the Vatican's website, which would enable us to skip the mile-long queue and just show up at the door with our passes in hand at the scheduled time. Since we had some time to fill, we strolled down the Via della Conciliazione towards a destination I really wanted to see.

 
 

I'm not entirely sure I should be publicly admitting this, but a decent portion of my knowledge of Rome's (and other Italian cities') architecture, history, and layout comes from a series of award-winning video games known as Assassin's Creed. The series skips through time, documenting the age-old war between the Assassins and the Knights Templar by taking real historical events and figures, building upon them and using them to tell the story of these two warring factions. Game play features lots of climbing, fighting, running through the streets (and on the rooftops), and plenty of scenes revolving around historical landmarks and people. With a team of historians consulting on these games, the end result is not only entertaining, but educational:  players end up with a fair bit of knowledge regarding the history of the city and country and the layout and landmarks of the historical city. As odd as it sounds, having played this series augmented our enjoyment of this trip considerably.

Bearing that in mind, one of the places I absolutely had to see today was the Castel Sant'Angelo and the Ponte Sant'Angelo. As you may have guessed, in one of the games a good bit of time is spent at this location, and at one point the player even parachutes off the flagpole atop the castle itself. I had never even heard of this place before these games, but after playing them, I had to see it with my own eyes. My eyes were not disappointed. My nose was, though (more on this later). Originally built in 135 CE by the Emperor Hadrian as a mausoleum for himself and his family, it was later turned into a fortress, a papal castle, and even a prison. Currently it is a museum, albeit a state one, meaning it was closed when we arrived. But that didn't stop us from ogling it and strolling through the grounds. The exterior is very impressive, and I can only imagine that we missed a really good tour of the interior as well.  

Another not-to-be-missed site is the bridge traversing the Tiber and connecting the borough of Borgo to the castle, known these days as the Ponte Sant'Angelo. Its history is just as varied as the castle's--they used to display the bodies of the executed along the bridge, for example. In the 17th century, the Pope commissioned famed sculptor Bernini to design and create 10 angels of the Passion, and although the sculptures on the bridge today were not made my Bernini's hand, they were still his design and were mostly done under his tutelage. They're gorgeous and well worth a closer look. I would advise, however, that you don't descend the steps on either side of the bridge, or at least not too far. You'll start to notice a smell. Let's just call it the eau d'urine. Apparently, Roman men like to use the stairs for their personal urinals. So...watch your step and hold your nose if you, like me, choose to brave it for the sake of some photos!

While walking around the exterior of Vatican City and the associated piazzas, we were accosted by dozens of "tour guides," hawking their services to gullible tourists. The smarter ones used pretty women or costumed guides; the less savvy ones used some rather rough looking front men. Either way, it doesn't matter what you do, they will approach you and try to make a deal. Sure, you could be polite and tell each and every one of them that you aren't interested, but if you want to get where you're going before next Christmas, the best thing to do is pretend they simply don't exist. Eyes forward, don't slow down, just keep on moving. The more tenacious ones will walk beside you, switching languages, testing to see which one you respond to. Eventually, you have to tell these guys to shove off. Admittedly, we attempted to pretend we only spoke German for awhile, until we met one who actually spoke German. After that, it was Plan B:  pretend we only understood one of those clicking languages from Africa. We figured we'd be pretty safe with that one.

The bulk of our day was spent wandering the Musei Vaticani, the Vatican Museums. I wish I knew how many miles of corridors and exhibits there were in this place, but I can tell you with certainty that it would take at least two full days to fully explore everything the Vatican has to offer. Think of it this way:  one of the wealthiest and most powerful organizations on the face of the earth has been collecting the best works of art century after century, and not always on the up and up. Romans have had millennia to perfect this practice--all you have to do is glance around at the sheer number of obelisks and other Egyptian artifacts to realize that the victors really do get the spoils. The end result are museums full of beautiful, priceless masterpieces and never enough time to see everything.

A few of the highlights of the Musei Vaticani:
  • Laoco÷n and His Sons (Gruppo del Laocoonte) - This sculpture is thought to have been created around 40 BCE, and it depicts the Trojan priest, Laoco÷n, and his sons being strangled by a sea serpent. This piece was rediscovered in the 16th century, and Michelangelo was brought in to help reconstruct it. It's a masterpiece, and even though we had to fight through a throng of gawkers to get our place in front, it was worth it. The detail is unreal. I'll never understand how artists can make stone look so life-like, right down to the veins in the limbs!
  • The Gallery of Maps - Rather unexpectedly, this room was actually my favorite of the day. At a length of 120 meters, the gallery is longer than a football field, and it is completely lined on both sides with painted topographical maps of Italy. It took three years for the artist to complete the maps, finishing in 1583. On top of that, the vaulted ceiling is completely covered in more artwork and portraiture. The end result is a long walk with one's jaw on the floor. 
  • Stanze di Raffaello - In the early 1500's, Pope Julius II commissioned the young Raphael to decorate the rooms of his apartment:  four rooms full of priceless fresco masterpieces. The Raphael Rooms, commonly known as the Stanze, were fully restored over the last few decades, and the results were phenomenal. The vibrancy of the colors is surreal. Seeing "The School of Athens" as in situ as it was meant to be seen? Unforgettable.     
  • Sistine Chapel - To be honest, this one was a bit of a let down. Something about being crowded into the chapel like sardines and constantly hearing "NO FOTO" and "SHHHHH" belted out by the guards just ruins the spirituality of the moment, know what I mean? Of course the painting was gorgeous and overwhelming, but the atmosphere was lacking. 
  • Museum of Papal Carriages - The history of the Pope-mobile--that's what this place is. It occupies a space under the Vatican courtyards, and it features everything from gilded, ornately carved carriages up to the 1980 Fiat Campagnola in which Pope John Paul II was shot. The takeaway from this exhibit:  the Pope is pimpin'. 
  • Egypt on Display - So this isn't an actual exhibit or gallery, but what really struck me was the sheer amount of Egyptian and other pagan relics and sculptures in the house of the Pope. You could be looking at a piece of art depicting the transfiguration of Christ, and in the next room you've got relics stolen from Heliopolis. The juxtaposition is bizarre. But I suppose to the victor goes the spoils, eh?
The plan had been to end the day with a visit to Basilica di San Pietro, St. Peter's Basilica, and to enjoy the view from the dome. The reality was that the line to get in wrapped all the way around the piazza, and after having walked miles through the museum hallways packed in like sardines with other tourists, another line and more time as a sardine just wasn't something about which we could muster any excitement. Instead, we took the easy way out and strolled around the piazza itself rather than wasting time and energy in line. The piazza was designed by Bernini, the same man responsible for the angels on the Ponte Sant'Angelo (in the span of a couple of days he pretty much became my favorite artist ever). At the center is an ancient Egyptian obelisk, believed to have been constructed around 2400 BCE, which was removed from Heliopolis by Emperor Augustus and then placed in Rome by Emperor Caligula. It was moved to its current location in the 16th century, and upon completion of the relocation, the Pope pronounced an exorcism ritual over it to cleanse it of any residual evil from its pagan roots. The words of the ritual are etched into two sides of the obelisk. Interestingly, the piazza was designed in such a way that the obelisk acts as a sun dial, marking the time of day as well as solstices and equinoxes. You'll also find that it is ringed by circular markers with funny faces, known as a wind rose, indicating the direction and the name of the wind originating in that direction. 

And while we didn't step foot in St. Peter's Basilica itself, we sat awhile and marveled in its immensity while we were in the neighborhood. It's hard to explain just how large this church is, but to put it in perspective, check out the picture here.  See the tiny people waiting in line at the bottom? See the statues lining the roof?  Wrap your brain around the difference in size. Fun fact:  those statues are 19 feet tall.  

Having walked miles through the halls of the Musei Vaticani and up and down the Via della Conciliazione, our feet had pretty much given out at this point. We finished taking all of our photos (and helping others take theirs) before putting our blinders on and getting our mouths ready to click as we headed back through the throngs of tour guides, tourists, and nuns to hop back on the metro.  
 
After taking a rest and taking time to freshen up, we went next door to Accasadi and had what I would ultimately consider the best meal of our entire trip, based on the recommendation of the front desk staff. We did this one correctly:  four courses, a bottle of wine, and a full ninety minutes of real Italian dining. We shared some focaccia bread as an appetizer, and then we each ate a dish called a quadrotti, which is a giant, puffed up ravioli stuffed with your choice of fillings (I recommend the cheese, prosciutto, and zucchini one). Following it up with some tiramisu and a shot of limoncello, I think, was the perfect end to a phenomenal meal and a nice cap on a pretty awesome day.

Lessons learned today:
  • Bathroom attendants are creepy.
  • Perhaps the bathroom attendants are the reason so many people pee on the bridges.
  • Never buy a drink or a bite to eat from a cart near a tourist attraction. It's like buying food at a movie theater--but worse. Unless you like paying $9 for a single coke, do yourself a favor and stop at a grocery store for a 12-pack of water or a 6-pack of coke, which will run you between $3 and $5.  
  • This country has an unhealthy obsession with Nutella.
  • I might have an unhealthy obsession with nuns doing non-nun things.
  • As god as my witness, I will learn how to make quadrotti.
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